Book Review: The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

Book - The Lieutenant by Kate GrenvilleThe Lieutenant follows the story of Daniel Rooke, a highly intelligent young man with a passion for astronomy, who has always struggled to fit in with those around him. Set in the late eighteenth century, the book feels both rooted in its time, yet also strangely contemporary.    

As a young astronomer with no money or privilege, Rooke eventually finds work in the army, embarking on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to New South Wales, where a consignment of convicts are tasked with colonisation. Rooke’s particular role is to accompany the settlers, and to establish an observatory in order to locate and track the path of Halley’s comet, predicted to appear in 1788.

By this point in the narrative, we know that Rooke is struggling with the knowledge that his conscience will not always allow him to agree with, or be party to some of the things expected of him as a soldier. He is thrilled to see the Aboriginal people from a distance, but feels unsettled by the strange mix of curtesy and threat that his superiors use as they attempt to communicate with these men.

Rooke manages to avoid too much interaction with the goings-on of the camp and the supervision of the convicts, preferring to isolate himself as much as possible on the cliff top with his telescope. He revels in this new found freedom:

“It was his own, as no place had ever been other than the attic in Church Street, and it was private. If he wanted to converse with himself, he could. He had forgotten the pleasure of thinking aloud. There was no one here to judge, no one to remind him that being ordinary was hard work.

He felt as if he had been compressed, like a limb squeezed with a tourniquet, for all those years of school and shipboard life. Now, at last, he could expand to fill whatever space was proper to him. Out here, with his thoughts his only company, he could become nothing more or less than the person he was.”

But the relief of isolation is soon eclipsed by the rush of excitement he gets from a series of brief encounters with the Aboriginals, who ignore him entirely at first. Gradually he meets more of them, and it is only when some of the children show curiosity in his small home and belongings, that he begins to revel in the strange and wonderful exchange of one language with another.

Rooke eventually builds a friendship, of sorts, with one child in particular, but he cannot keep this interaction a secret forever. He soon faces a situation where he must make a choice, to obey his orders, or protect his Aboriginal friends. There are huge risks for all involved, and it is not an easy decision to make.

This is a heartwarming, engaging story. I would have liked to hear from the perspective of Tagaran, the Aboriginal child. As it is, our view of the encounter feels very one-sided, but Daniel Rooke is an engaging character; the reader can easily identify with his growing realisation of the reality in which he plays a part. It’s also a gripping read.

Buy The Lieutenant by Kate Grenville

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